Pope Francis has called for a reexamination of how the Church treats Catholics who have divorced and (civilly) remarried. Because a valid marriage between baptized Christians is considered indissoluble, a Catholic who remarries after a civil divorce is living in open adultery and so may not take communion. A synod of bishops this October will lay the groundwork for all the world’s bishops to gather in 2015 and consider how the Church treats sex and marriage.
This new call has sparked enough conversation about prominent thinkers, from the New York Times’ Ross Douthat to this July 30 commentary by Peter Berger, to make me think that my two cents, my widow’s mite, is worth offering.
This conversation takes place in a particular context: first, the challenge to the Catholic Church to combine truth and love, teaching and mercy.
The overall trend in the Catholic Church has been to hold tight to dogma but retreat from discipline, leaving more matters to the individual conscience of the believer, who has presumably both the teaching of the Church and the door of the confessional always open for him to receive Christ’s forgiveness for his or her sins. Hence the American bishops have mostly resisted calls to refuse the Eucharist to pro-abortion politicians like Nancy Pelosi
, and even disciplined priests who withheld communion
from partnered lesbians.
I personally don’t think this dogma-without-discipline plan has worked that well, overall, especially given the failure of the Church to communicate its teaching to the children in its schools and to the people in its pews on Sunday, and sometimes apparently to priests in its seminaries. But nobody made me a bishop, and it is understandable, at least in theory, given the havoc the sexual revolution (not to mention consumerism) has wreaked in ordinary people’s lives.
But that strategy doesn’t work at all for the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics. Remarried Catholics cannot just go to confession for their sins, because they intend by their public act of remarriage to keep on sinning against their original vow.
Cardinal Kasper, appointed the point man by Pope Francis to make the case for change, proposes a twofold solution to this pastoral problem: Make the annulment process easier by dispensing with a trial process, and allow Catholics who divorce and remarry in a valid marriage to sincerely repent of failures and take the Eucharist with the blessings of Christ and his Church.
Here Cardinal Kasper explains in an interview with Commonweal:
But I cannot think of a situation in which a human being has fallen into a gap and there is no way out. Often he cannot return to the first marriage. If this is possible, there should be a reconciliation, but often that’s not possible.
In the Creed we say we believe in the forgiveness of sin. If there was this shortcoming, and it has been repented for — is absolution not possible? My question goes through the sacrament of penance, through which we have access to Holy Communion. . . . My question — not a solution, but a question — is this: Is absolution not possible in this case? And if absolution, then also Holy Communion? There are many themes, many arguments in our Catholic tradition that could allow this way forward.
To live together as brother and sister? Of course I have high respect for those who are doing this. But it’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian. That could also create new tensions. Adultery is not only wrong sexual behavior. It’s to leave a familiaris consortio, a communion, and to establish a new one. But normally it’s also the sexual relations in such a communion, so I can’t say whether it’s ongoing adultery. Therefore I would say, yes, absolution is possible. Mercy means God gives to everybody who converts and repents a new chance.”
Christianity is just too hard. Ordinary Christians can’t be expected to do it.
I have a confession to make of my own: This public debate within the Church saddens me, precisely because it was the Catholic Church’s teaching on life, sex, marriage, and especially divorce that pulled me back into the practice of my faith.
My mother left the Church in 1968, when I was eight years old. I came back to the Church in my late 20s, through a process of reflection on the very real consequences of the sexual revolution in my own life.
Is it okay to have an abortion? By what standard do we decide that some human life is not worthy of respect, and why do we do that? By the age of 18 it was clear to me, an unchurched atheist and recent disciple of Ayn Rand, that the reason most people decide abortion is okay is that abortion is necessary if we are going to live the way the sexual revolution tells us to.